New installment of What History Tells explores the rise of European racism

Gorge Mosse in flimstrips

The legendary University of Wisconsin-Madison professor George Mosse taught courses in European cultural history, providing unique insight into racism and fascism. Mosse retired in 1987, but his work couldn’t be more relevant in an era plagued by increasing intolerance and authoritarianism. That helps explain the appeal of What History Tells, an online course featuring Mosse’s original lectures.

UW-Madison offers a new installment of the course on March 26-May 4, focusing on “European Racism, Anti-Semitism, and the Fate of Liberalism, 1890-1945.” Participants will listen to recordings of Mosse’s lectures from 1971-94, watch a new video adapted from one of his slide presentations, and read his revelatory works. Skye Doney, a historian with UW-Madison’s George L. Mosse Program in History, will introduce weekly topics and facilitate online discussions to place the archival material in the context of current events.

The new course will explore two of Mosse’s key questions: How did individuals and political movements cultivate a hatred of “outsiders”? And why were liberal democratic systems unable to adapt to mass movements or to counter extremist political ideologies?

“In times of economic impasse, people are looking for a safety anchor,” Mosse said, with words that ring true today. “And racism gives them an explanation of why it’s happening. It gives them an explanation of who is guilty. It gives them a self-confidence. We are superior, we have a glorious history, and we must fight against you.”

Digging deeply into his soul

Sidney Iwanter
UW-Madison has restored the lectures by George Mosse (pictured above) that Sidney Iwanter recorded on his primitive cassette recorder.

Since its debut in 2015, What History Tells has attracted a wide range of students, from lifelong learners to those seeking university credit. The new cohort will include a group from Hebrew University, along with a man who’d attended Mosse’s lectures as an undergraduate in the 1960s and early ‘70s—and taped them on a primitive Bell and Howell cassette recorder.

Sidney Iwanter is a Milwaukee native who grew up in Madison’s Greenbush neighborhood, then became a TV producer and vice president of the Fox Kids Network. He majored in history at UW-Madison and, given his family’s Eastern European Jewish background, felt a special connection to Mosse’s courses. Mosse himself was born to a Jewish family in Germany and escaped the Nazis in 1933—an experience that informed his scholarly interest in authoritarian regimes.

“Prof. Mosse was digging deeply into his own soul,” Iwanter says. “It’s one thing to talk about intellectual history of the 19th century, but another thing to talk about the reason why you and your family had to scram out of Berlin. It was the sort of emotional impact you could hear in his voice.”

As a UW-Madison student, Iwanter taped Mosse’s lectures because he wanted his father—who’d grown up in Eastern Europe—to hear them. He’s donated the tapes to the university, which has restored them for use in What History Tells. They’ve been enhanced with transcripts, web links, images, and introductions by Doney.

Learn more about Continuing Studies history and humanities courses. To hear Sidney Iwanter’s impressions of George Mosse, watch the video above.